The “Absolute Truth” About Dogmatism (Judy J. Johnson, 2008)

NOTE: The following article are excerpts from the first chapter of What’s So Wrong About Being Absolutely Right: The Dangerous Nature of Dogmatic Belief by Judy J. Johnson:

What’s So Wrong About Being Absolutely Right

It is much easier to demolish someone else’s ideas than to suspend judgment and carefully examine our own. Such analysis requires moving beyond what we believe to why and how we hold beliefs of central importance. Many people do not analyze their beliefs much beyond the what stage. Certainly not dogmatists. They have little difficulty explaining the content of their beliefs, and their arrogant pronouncements clearly reveal how they believe. Less visible are the psychological reasons why they close their minds to anything that contradicts what they know to be true—absolutely true. In describing fanaticism (a variant of dogmatism), Winston Churchill said, “A fanatic is someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the topic.”

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Psychologists can only infer from observable emotions and behaviors the invisible forces that drive people to close their minds to reason and act in self-defeating ways. The theory of dogmatism proposed here is such an inferential model—a systematized compilation of ideas about plausible causes that account for dogmatism’s unique characteristics. For some, it may seem odd to propose a theory that has not been empirically validated, but that is the core of psychology. In a similar vein, “to believe something while knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of physics.”1 Theory is thus a convenient model that can turn useful fictions into testable predictions.

All of us have encountered dogmatists and dogmatism. We recognize that personal and worldly decisions are made by dogmatists whose default systems include instant, premature judgment and dismissal of opposing or novel ideas. Tenaciously, they cling to their steadfast beliefs when common sense and countervailing evidence suggests they should re-examine their faulty assumptions. With little reflection or humility, they are driven to defend themselves against facts, comments, or questions that they interpret as direct threats to their intellectual integrity and personal dignity, as a result, we cannot get through to them.

The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs - Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth
The Tenacity of Unreasonable Beliefs – Fundamentalism and the Fear of Truth

Yet, as with all problems, closing our eyes and hoping for the best is surely naive. It is therefore urgent that we study the organization of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that shape doctrinaire belief systems. We need to know what we’re up against before zealous movements gain emotional momentum and convert fear to dangerous, self-righteous anger, and before the free spirit of democracy is derailed by close-minded decisions. It behooves our familial, educational, and political systems to counter these dangers with reason, vigilance, and the liberty of open-minded dialogue, all of which strike fear in the hearts of dogmatists, whose social, political, moral, and spiritual values are frozen in time.

Why is it that some people obstinately refuse to open their minds to new ideas, even when persuasive, contradictory evidence should give them reason to pause? They simply refuse to see things any other way. Not only do they cling to beliefs with rigid certainty, their lack of interpersonal skills makes them oblivious to the effect their proclamations have on others. From ordinary people to priests, presidents, and professors, dogmatists feel protected by what they believe and fail to see that how they believe limits their opportunities for success and erodes their credibility. Like the bed in their guestroom, their minds are always made up, but seldom used.

But these are only some of the problems created by the need to be absolutely right. Around the dinner table, dogmatism is there to constrain thought. At social gatherings, dogmatism interrupts free-spirited conversation. During office meetings and government sittings, dogmatism derails progress. The dictatorial bark of dogmatism had interrupted peace and progress ever since humans began articulating beliefs about the world and their place in it. In its mildest form, dogmatism is the voice that asserts: “I am right; you are wrong.” Moderate dogmatism presents a stronger variation: “I am right; you are stupid.” Extreme dogmatism (or zealotry) is vicious and violent: “I am right; you are dead.”2 Understood from a psychological perspective, individual dogmatism is the practice that assures one: “I am right; therefore safe.”

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Since ancient times, great thinkers have espoused the philosophical importance of being open-minded and cautioned against the perils of doctrinaire thinking. But little was written about dogmatism as a distinct personality disposition until the end of the Weimar Republic in Germany, when Erich Fromm and Wilhelm Reich sought to understand why Germans were drawn to Hitler.

Dogmatism is a personality trait. Psychologists use the term personality trait to refer to aspects of personality that motivate us to think, feel, and act in fairly consistent ways across time and different situations. In that sense, traits allow us to make reasonable predictions about people’s behavior, because we observe the same person express his or her unique traits (in this case, dogmatism) in many different situations. Traits are therefore more widespread and enduring than specific habits or behavioral tendencies.3

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Dogmatism: Ancient and Modern Meanings

Throughout history, believers of various ideologies have clamored to dominate religious and political movements. In this regard, dogmatic beliefs that justify power and dominion over others know no boundaries. Psychologically, belief systems consist of perceptions, cognitions, and emotions that the brain considers to be accurate if not true. While perceptions are interpretations we make about the world based on our sensory systems, cognitions refer to abstract mental processes that continually organize and process these perceptions in unique, meaningful ways. Thus, the terms cognitive and cognition refer to our brain’s abstract organization and interpretation of sensory experiences—what we see, hear, touch, taste, and smell.

This visual metaphor represents an attempt to synthesize research & theory on cognitive diversity.
This visual metaphor represents an attempt to synthesize research & theory on cognitive diversity.

Dogmatism presumably emerged with the development of language, through which people began crafting myths and folklore about their experiences, abilities, identities, social roles, and various cultural values. When strong emotions became attached to tales and myths, belief systems ensued, some of which were consolidated in dogma that later became institutionalized. Such dogma was stamped with official authority that had the potential for the rigid trappings of dogmatism. But the first definition of dogma is relatively neutral. The Oxford English Dictionary defines dogma as:

“1. That which is held as an opinion; a belief, principle, tenet; esp., a tenet or doctrine laid down by a particular church, sect, or school of thought; sometimes, [my emphasis], depreciatingly, an imperious or arrogant declaration of opinion. 2. The body of opinion formulated or authoritatively stated; systematized belief; tenets or principles collectively; doctrinal system.”

Thus, dogma need not always enact the practice of dogmatism; it may merely reflect the content of institutionalized belief systems that may or not be practiced dogmatically. According to Webster’s to be dogmatic is to be “positive, magisterial; asserting or disposed to assert with authority or with overbearing and arrogance; applied to persons; as a dogmatic schoolman or philosopher.” Tenets differ in that they do not carry such stamps of authority. Webster’s again notes: “A tenet rests on its own intrinsic merits or demerits; a dogma rests on authority regarded as competent to decide and determine.”

Conflicts about various belief systems that were formerly settled among families, small bands, tribes, and larger groups (known as chiefdoms) later became settled by the resolute decisions of appointed rulers who had a monopoly on information, which allowed them to exercise arbitrary power. Such muscular control meant they could apply force to indoctrinate people with “official religious and patriotic fervor [and] make their troops willing to fight suicidally.”4 Ruling elites converted supernatural beliefs into religious dogma that institutionalized and justified the chief’s authority. Moreover, shared ideology expanded the bonds of kinship that held groups together and motivated people to cooperate, thus enabling large groups of strangers to live together in peace.5 To further consolidate and legitimize their power, rulers built temples and monuments as visible reminders of their supremacy. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Industrial Revolution, European empires used state religions to give kings, queens, and monarchs divine status that legitimized war and the colonization of the Western world.6

Common Sense is not So COmmon

As recently as three centuries ago there was no question but to automatically accept dogma as pure, even divine, doctrine. Humans have always sought meaningful explanations for existence and effective guidelines for living, and, linguistically, religion refers to anything which one is strongly devoted. Through stories and religious rituals, beliefs and behaviors become transformed. Long before the scientific method became the practice for developing a body of reliable knowledge, scriptures were routinely endorsed as indisputable truths, and they were adopted and held with absolute conviction, but without much reflection on their accuracy or feasibility. Beliefs were assumed to be divinely inspired, and it is therefore understandable that the terms dogma and dogmatism were first associated with religion. Given the brutal history of torture and killings that religious dogma inspired, it is also understandable how the term dogma acquired a pejorative meaning. Yet religious dogma may be simply perceived as devout teachings based on divine revelation—teachings that promise communal associations that are sustained through ritual.

Seen from the psychological perspective of dogmatism, political and religious ideologies are not the key problem in social unrest; their corresponding dogmas simply consist of articulated or written words. The purpose of any dogma “lies in its ability to point beyond itself to a deeper reality which cannot be readily articulated in a simple formula or expression.”7 But when dogma is elevated to absolute truth, it is often accompanied by deeply embedded emotions that compel people to unquestioningly adopt it as a demonstration of loyalty or piety—an act that assuages fear and offers psychological protection. Emotions, not reason, propel allegiance and obedience, and the dogma of yesterday kindles the dogmatism of today, which can be anything but benign.

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Throughout the Middle Ages, gross misinterpretations of Jesus Christ’s teachings were applied during the Crusades, the Inquisition, and the Catholic Church’s witch hunts. These hypocritical misrepresentations of dogma and fantasies chewed up bits of undigested ideology and spit it out as dogmatism. These examples of rigid, individual dogmatism are beleaguered by pervasive, enduring psychological problems that lurk beneath the dogma of one’s stated beliefs. As we shall see in later chapters, within these murky domains, negative emotions of anxiety and anger contaminate and obscure reason, which ultimately compromises personal and intellectual freedom.

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Religious beliefs held sway during the Middle Ages, when uncritical acceptance of dogma was the norm—especially given people’s lack of education, their socialization to honor authority figures, and their fear of questioning religious authorities. This culture of religion stifled efforts toward rational inquiry up until the 17th and 18th centuries, when scientists and philosophers inspired a new Age of Reason. Eminent philosophers and scientists advocated superstition be replaced by the voice of authoritative reason. They stressed the importance of subordinating religious belief to the power of reason, empirical observation, and critical thinking, and in their struggle to facilitate open-minded inquiry, they began to formulate a scientific approach to knowledge that would gradually replace the Church’s dominion over political and religious orthodoxy.

Yet today, as they did centuries ago, dogmatic people continue to assert their beliefs as if they were scientific axioms that do not require proof. It is axiomatic that the earth rotates on its axis and that squares have four equal, perpendicular sides, but is it axiomatic that Jesus rose from the dead or was conceived by the Virgin Mary? When such beliefs are presumed to be self-evident rather than based on evidence, they exonerate the believer from any burden of proof. People who are more flexible in their thinking often reject such faulty reasoning and dislike the proselytizing manner of fervent believers.

Dogmatists in other religions sanctimoniously condemn the unconverted with a close-mindedness that commandeers reason. Yet to condemn, control, or rule others from one’s own self-doubt and emotional apprehension risks violating people’s inalienable rights.

Mattathias killing a Jewish apostate (1 Maccabees 2: 15 - 29).
Mattathias killing a Jewish apostate (1 Maccabees 2: 15 – 29).

Dogmatism, Common Synonyms and Related Terms

Psychologists generally agree that dogma, ideology, opinions, attitudes, values, and belief systems have distinct meanings but three overlapping properties. First, these terms connote individual beliefs about what is true or false, good or bad, desirable or undesirable, right or wrong. Second, all are accompanied by emotions that vary in intensity and duration from mild, transient emotions to passionate, sustained arousal. Such emotions create physiological responses that a person may or may not be aware of. Third, because our attitudes and values consist of several related beliefs that motivate behavior, entire belief systems are more potent than single beliefs.8

However, whether a particular belief stands alone or in relation to other beliefs, “beliefs are principles of action: whatever they may be at the level of the brain, they are processes by which our understanding (and misunderstanding) of this world is represented and made available to guide our behavior.”9 And “as long as a person maintains that his beliefs represent an actual state of the world (visible or invisible; spiritual or mundane), he must believe that his beliefs are a consequence of the way the world is. This, by definition, leaves him vulnerable to new evidence.”10 Whether one’s beliefs are based on facts that attempt to reveal truths or are value judgments that imply behavioral proscriptions, beliefs about either domain reflect attempts to understand ourselves and the surrounding world in a way that enhances the quality of life. Finally, behaviors reveal underlying beliefs much more than verbal pronouncements alone, for, as the adage notes, “Love is as love does.” On a broader scale, democracy is as democracy does, and dogmatism is as dogmatism does.

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While attitudes and values are typically prominent and enduring, single beliefs and opinions are less persistent and more narrowly circumscribed in their emotional, cognitive, and behavioral parameters. People whose attitudes and values are held dogmatically may be described as opinionated, and although the terms dogmatic and opinionated imply close-mindedness, opinions refer more to specific issues that are often of shorter duration and less penetrating. There is nothing inherently destructive about being opinionated, but dogmatism is another matter, especially given its degree of intolerance, its excessive and prolonged emotional baggage, and its harmful behavioral consequences.

Throughout this book the terms dogma and ideology are used interchangeably, but both are intended to convey closed-minded, rigid convictions about belief systems that have damaging consequences for individuals and groups. Whereas some belief systems reflect cultural attitudes and values that are based on informal, commonsense notions about, for example, marriage and parenting, others are institutionalized policies that are derivative of formal, academic theories. But regardless of how dogma or ideology is derived, ideologues who adopt dogma as inerrant truth bathe reason in excessive emotion.

Philosophers have long given serious thought to dogma, dogmatists, and dogmatism.11 More than two years ago, the skeptics first applied the term dogmatics to people who believed that absolute truth was attainable through the activity of reason. If one reasoned hard enough and long enough, universal truths would emerge. Such claims did not sit well with two pre-eminent skeptics—Pyrrho (ca. 360-270 BCE) and Sextus Empiricus (ca. 160-210 CE). These philosophers and their followers believed that reasoning could never distill logical theory into a single truth. Their objective was to examine arguments to determine if equally reasonable counter arguments could be mounted. Any sound opposing argument would show that a declaration statement cannot be considered correct with absolute certainty, and, therefore, any claims of discovering truth are invalid (this is especially so with statements pertaining to abstract concepts, which most psychological constructs are, including dogmatism). By acting on their belief that nothing can ever be proven, only falsified, these and other skeptics dismissed all theories of objective truth as delusions of certainty.12

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While the skeptics argues that beliefs and ideas are never true, they nonetheless believed that we could become knowledgeable, provided our ideas are supported by solid premises and sound reasoning, and as long as no strong argument provides a better alternative explanation. Even when these conditions are met, we can still go no further than to state that “this is how it seems to me.” Once people understand that no one can ever know for certain that any proposition is true, they will cease to strive for absolute truth and, consequently, acquire peace of mind and tranquility (this is the state of ataraxia, as described by ancient philosophers).

In our pursuit of knowledge, we must also guard against the erroneous view of radical skeptics who are lost in a quagmire of doubt, denial, and disbelief.13 These skeptics refuse to believe any assertion or apparent fact, preferring instead to habitually doubt everything. While the radical or absolute skeptic arbitrarily denies anything without grounds for rejection, the dogmatist arbitrarily asserts truth without grounds for acceptance. The absolute skeptic and the dogmatist are therefore similar in that neither values open-minded inquiry and evidence-based knowledge. We can assume that the absolute skeptic and the dogmatist would occupy extreme ends on a linear scale that measures close-minded thinking, because both have a rigid approach to ideas and information and both are unable to expand or substantiate views that they arbitrarily reject or cling to with unwarranted certainty.

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In contrast, the scientific skeptic has a more broad-minded approach to knowledge. He or she questions the validity of a particular claim by calling for evidence to prove or disprove it.14 Evidence emerges only from a scrupulous, deliberate process of original inquiry, critical thinking, and constructive criticism that validates new knowledge against previous benchmarks of understanding. The task of modern-day skeptics is to purge our inquiries and beliefs of bias, hasty alliances, and accidental inheritances, to overcome prejudice (literally, pre-judgment, judgment before inquiry), to examine all possibilities with sympathetic interest and critical attention, and to love truth loyally so that we may be spared the embrace of falsehood in the darkness.15

Individual belief systems are adopted through a complicated process. It is not always clear whether personal statements are components of an overarching, systematized ideology or whether they evolve from personal meaning extracted from organized, institutional ideologies derived from dogma.16 What is clear—and clearly disconcerting—is the manner in which dogmatists adopt, adhere to, and impose their beliefs on others.

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At the individual level, gradients of dogmatism all have in common rigid, ideological beliefs, and while political and religious belief systems are assumed to be the most common targets of dogmatism, quite possibly some social science researcher might prove me wrong by discovering that significantly more people are dogmatic about parenting styles and sexual morality. But regardless of the issues involved, dogmatic minds are closed to new ideas and evidence that refutes their established beliefs. Displays of intolerance and discrimination towards others are justified by uncorroborated or unverifiable dogma that removes the dogmatist from the rational world of history, philosophy, and science. In the extreme, dogmatism plays out the psychological fantasies of fanatics who are devout followers of fundamentalist ideology, such as that seen in suicide missions and terrorist attacks. Among these dogmatists, there is a powerful temptation to join groups that appeal to the weakest link in the chain of their psychological being.

Working Toward A Psychological Definition of Dogmatism

A comprehensive psychological definition of dogmatism needs to capture the essence of its entire suite of cognitive, emotional, and behavior complexity, and it needs to do so with enough precision to render it capable of empirical validation. We will keep in mind that beneath the definition of each characteristic is a network of deep-rooted causes that have serious psychological and psychosocial consequences. What are the patterns of thoughts, emotions, motivations, and behaviors that motivate and sustain dogmatic belief systems? Why do some people transfer their personal autonomy to external agents whose reasoning ability they glorify? What enables some leaders to command followers to surrender their own moral standards and commit atrocities that violate international laws or disregard  universal codes of ethics? Why do some people declare that killing is wrong but rationalize its legitimacy when carried out in the name of God, democracy, or freedom? How do individuals develop polarized beliefs that legitimize casting groups of people into “us versus them” dichotomies that justify blame and retaliation against members of an out-group who then become scapegoats for dogmatists’ own unacknowledged weaknesses and failed identities? Why do some government leaders declare war and then simplify the complex with categorical rationalizations—win or lose, live or die, honorable or traitorous? Situating the conflict in a political or biblical context of righteous indignation makes their war noble and moral—a simple solution that prevents guilt, strips war of its horror, and turns flesh and blood into mere statistics. It is important to note the catalytic link between emotional vulnerability and dogmatism, especially during uncertain, fearful, or oppressive times, when vulnerable individuals abandon their moral and ethical principles. A compelling theory of dogmatism needs to address these questions as fully and open-mindedly as possible.

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The following psychological definition of dogmatism provides the framework for the theory proposed in this book: Dogmatism is a personality trait that combines cognitive, emotional, and behavioral  characteristics to personify prejudicial, close-minded belief systems that are pronounced with rigid certainty.17 As such, it reflects a style of thinking that is derivative of emotions, particularly anxiety, that narrow thought and energize behavior.

This is a psychological definition, but we cannot overlook certain social conditions that interact with psychological predispositions to unleash unconscionable, dogmatic authoritarian aggression (one of five behavioral characteristic of dogmatism).  Although this book focuses on dogmatism as a psychological trait, its development does not independently originate in the psyche; it is clearly influenced by social phenomena. Particularly vulnerable are individuals whose personal risk factors combine with stressful social and cultural environments that suppress independent, rational thought.

If we are to understand the mass psychology of group behavior, a thorough knowledge of the culture’s history is necessary to contextualize group goals. Whether the group is predominately motivated to gain freedom, pursue a particular religious or political ideology, redress social injustice, or seek revenge, its manner of addressing complex issues requires an assessment of the players’ motives within broad historical, cultural, and political contexts—a daunting obligatory task. Dogmatism inevitably reflects an interaction of inextricably linked individual and institutional forces.

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Behaviors that reflect the close-mindedness of dogmatism were present long before the conservative right clashed with the liberal left. Similarly, religious fundamentalists locked horns with secularists on battlegrounds that significantly predate the current conflict between creationists and evolutionary theorists, who seem unable to reconcile their differences. In addition, the demands of environmentalists collide with corporate game plans, feminists struggle against patriarchal power, and academics defend their turf in the very manner that advanced education warns against—a manner that betrays an open-minded pursuit of knowledge.

Despite philosophic and scientific advances made before, during, and after the Age of Reason, and despite scholarly contributions that emphasize the importance of open-minded inquiry, daunting social and political problems in the early years of this millennium are exacerbated by emotional excesses that gird dogmatism. The result is short-term quick fixes that, more often than not, work against the long-term interests of humanity. As we examine dogmatism’s unpleasant characteristics and harmful consequences to one’s self and associates (microdogmatism) and to social and cultural institutions (macrodogmatism), quite likely someone you know or have known will breathe vivid life into the black words on these white pages.

The question is, how objectively can we—you and I—assess psychological impediments that constrict our willingness to open-mindedly consider alternate views? … How accurately can you summarize countervailing ideas before contradicting them with your own? This does not mean that once you have fully considered opposing views you cannot arrive at a comfortable position and choose not to engage, at length, someone whose views significantly differ from your own. You may simply agree to disagree. But first, do you understand that with which you disagree? Genuine understanding requires active listening and hearing.

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It is consoling to know that we are all capable of being somewhat rigid, even close-minded about some of our ideas some of the time. We are inclined to adopt beliefs that accompany the circumstances of our birth and habitually defend them in the absence of thoughtful examination. Beliefs maintained by a combination of complacency and habit are not necessarily dogmatic, nor do they lead to incontrovertible, implacable belief systems that hallmark dogmatism. Dogmatic believers, however, are proud of their unwavering belief systems, even though they would not want to be thought of as dogmatic or pig-headed. Their desire to keep such uncomplimentary awareness and judgment hidden is not any different from the rest of us who want to conceal our own unacceptable thoughts and emotions.

Flexible open-mindedness about value-laden belief systems concerning politics, religion, and sex—the three big adrenaline movers—is an ongoing conscientious struggle. Close encounters of our own closed minds are often too close for comfort.

As Korzybski noted back in 1958, the common tendency is for people to make hasty generalizations  that lead to misevaluations and self-deception.18 We arrive at our beliefs for “non-rational reasons and we justify them after.”19 Those with the personality trait of dogmatism have a habit of doing this and generally lack awareness of the doctrinaire manner in which  they hold their beliefs. Such insight would shatter their self-image—an image that needs to be continually propped up and preserved by agreement from others. To see themselves as dogmatic would be too chilling to reconcile. When challenged to open their minds about alternative ideas, their inclination is to quickly judge and dismiss (especially ideas that conflict with their own). In doing so, they preserve the illusion that they are rational and open-minded.

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It is interesting to note that research suggests that once people adopt particular beliefs, they are less open to re-examining the validity of those beliefs from different perspectives.20 Reviewers of scientific research papers are far less likely to publish articles that do not support their own theoretical biases.21 They are not intellectually disabled, but they can be emotionally rigid and single-minded about beliefs and ideas, especially their own. Intelligent people who are capable of thinking through complex issues but choose instead to cling to traditional paradigms exhibit an “ideological immune system.”22 They are the academics who desperately seek to preserve a body of knowledge by immunizing themselves against foreign, cognitive intruders. After all, new ideas might germinate seeds of controversy that would threaten and destabilize their aura of intellectual integrity. Mathematical geniuses, acclaimed musicians and writers, and other highly intelligent people are not resistant to the errors of dogmatic protectionism.

This state of affairs is the opposite of what our intuition tells us it should be, yet “educated, intelligent, and successful adults rarely change their most fundamental presuppositions.”23 Psychologist David Perkins discovered that the connection between ideological rigidity and intelligence quotients unveiled surprising results: the higher the IQ, the greater the person’s inability to consider other viewpoints.24 Social psychology research indicates that very intelligent people and those with high self-esteem are more resistant to changing their views.25 However, other studies reveal modest correlations in the other direction: “The ability to overcome the effects of belief bias (or knowledge bias) was significantly related to cognitive ability in a formal reasoning task.”26 The results are therefore mixed, and more studies of belief inflexibility around values and formal reasoning are needed. It is possible that people with both types of cognitive rigidity invest time and energy bolstering their own convictions or trying to recruit and convince others because, “new and revolutionary systems of science tend to be resisted rather than welcomed with open arms, because every successful scientist has a vested intellectual, social, and even financial interest in maintaining the status quo. If every revolutionary new idea were welcomed with open arms, utter chaos would be the result.” The charismatically skilled who succeed at this mission leave important lessons for the rest of us.

Describing someone as an intelligent dogmatist may sound oxymoronic, but we would be naive to assume that all dogmatists are uneducated or of low intelligence. While dogmatism clearly indicates a defective style of rational thinking, it is not, strictly speaking, the product of intellectual deficiency. Something else is brewing beneath the surface. Dogmatic beliefs are driven by psychological needs and emotions that end up giving the appearance of intellectual limitation. As we shall see, beneath the surface there is a host of biological predispositions that interact with various other individual and environmental conditions to shape close-minded, inflexible thinking.

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What Dogmatism Is Not

Dogmatism is not the opposite of critical thinking. Although much has been written about how to promote critical thinking skills such as inductive and deductive reasoning, abstract analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of conceptual models, less attention has been given to the deeper psychological conditions that seriously impair one’s ability to think critically. People who are prone to dogmatism can learn all the theory available on critical thinking, but if unmet psychological needs are pushing them in dogmatic directions, their minds will not be sufficiently open to turn theory into practice.

Dogmatism should also not be confused with the open-minded passionate, social activism that creates popular movements for social change. What distinguishes dogmatic activists from their non-dogmatic counterparts is the former’s arrogant unwillingness to examine an issue from different perspectives and their unjustified rejection of those with opposing beliefs (even though their personal rejection may not be apparent). Open-minded people speak out; they do not lash out. They inspire reflection because they neither oblige agreement nor disdain disagreement. In sharp contrast to self-righteous dogmatic rants that deny opposing views, open-minded, inclusive, passionate reason stirs action.

Zealous dogmatists can move society in extraordinary directions. When individual dogmatism ignites group dogmatism, little remains that is thoughtful or useful in social activism. These are the people who feel the urge to assert their beliefs every chance they get and fail to recognize that passion without reason is puerile, reason without passion is sterile, and reason without passion is fertile.

You might be wondering how dogmatists differ from fanatics. According to research, dogmatists, fanatics, and zealots are soul mates, with some distinctions.27 Linked y their emotional intensity, all are capable of unleashing spiteful, self-righteous vengeance. While not all of them wield sledgehammers to drive their beliefs into the thick skulls of nonbelievers, dogmatists, fanatics, and zealots are all rigidly and emotionally attached to views they adopt as inviolate truth, and they readily dismiss opposing ideas and the people who hold them. Fanatics and zealots, however, show excessive, frenzied enthusiasm for beliefs that have an absurd or bizarre quality. Overlapping qualities among dogmatists, fanatics, and zealots often blur the distinctions. In general, fanatics occupy what has commonly been referred to as the “lunatic fringe,” while dogmatists appear relatively more rational—both in the beliefs they hold and in their less dramatic manner of presenting them. Characteristics of dogmatism are also differentiated from personality disorders that have secured special recognition in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. These disorders, which have overlapping behavioral characteristics of dogmatism, include the antisocial personality disorder, which exhibits dogmatic, authoritarian aggression; the histrionic personality disorder, which exhibits a preoccupation with power and status; and the narcissistic personality disorder, with its vilification of the out-group and self-aggrandizement. These are all features or subtraits of dogmatism.28

Monks and nuns from the various monasteries under Geronda Ephraim during St. Anthony Monastery’s Feast Day (ca. 2006)
Monks and nuns from the various monasteries under Geronda Ephraim during St. Anthony Monastery’s Feast Day (ca. 2006)

The Trait of Open-mindedness

Why do some people become dogmatic while others do not? Psychologists are currently unable to answer this question, but we can clued that the personality trait of open-mindedness is an antidote to dogmatism, and people who are cognitively flexible plainly differ from those who are easily threatened, emotionally defensive, and dismissive of anyone who disagrees with them or even proffers opposing beliefs. Open-minded, cognitive elasticity is seen among those who are awestruck by the miraculous beauty of life; they do not need to confine its complexities to explicit, doctrinaire categories of presumed truth. In their personal lives, they are open to considering and accepting different views and have little if any need to change the beliefs and values of people who differ, unless opposing beliefs directly threaten their own or others’ freedom. Those with open cognitive systems can comfortably explore a topic as widely and deeply as the conversation takes them. They confront the issue, not the person, and rarely infer motives for an opponent’s stated beliefs or jump to conclusions when someone changes the topic. Condescending frowns, sarcasm, and patronizing voices are rare. In their presence, we are relaxed and yet poised to respond to whatever topic emerges, be it serious or silly. Able to laugh at themselves and the absurdities of life, open-minded people generally prefer a philosophic sense of humor that is without hostile, pretentious condemnation.29

Curious and open-minded, they resemble the Athenians of yore who so valued the pursuit of knowledge that they invented the first alphabet, philosophy, logic, principles of political democracy, poetry, plays, and the idea of schools. Open-minded people today are no exception. They recognize “the fallibility of one’s own opinions, the probability of bias in those opinions, and the danger of differentially weighting evidence according to personal preferences.”30 Willing to suspend judgment as far as humanly possible, they explore multiple views and are not subservient to the beliefs that underlie social conventions. Because their beliefs are autonomously determined, these people are not easily convinced that certain ideas are absolutely true, nor are they readily manipulated by propaganda.  Similarly, because their acceptance, rejection, or reservations regarding social values are authentic, they are less vulnerable to external reinforcements of flattery or bribery. They can detect inherent biases and premature assumptions, accurately process new or challenging viewpoints about complex or controversial issues, and are capable of admitting errors in their own thinking, whereupon they revise their beliefs accordingly.

Open-minded people understand that a demolition act on opposing belief is relatively easy; the more difficult task is to distance themselves from personal convictions, to put their egos aside and let them rest awhile. Flexible of mind, they can tolerate ambiguity and uncertainty. They examine ideas that are based on stereotypical reasoning or incomplete information, and they recognize when personal needs shape, control, or distort information. At their best, they are invulnerable to manipulation. Their reasoning emanates from an open-minded appraisal of reality and they accept that eternal, universal truths are elusive. Truths are reasoned, conditional, and probable, not final and absolute.  Many would agree with Seth Lloyd: “Unlike mathematical theorems, scientific results can’t be proved. They can only be tested again and again until only a fool would refuse to believe them.”31

Such a provisional stance is not to be confused with wishy-washy, ideological free fall. Open-minded people deliberate as long as necessary about important ethical and scientific principles that are derived from reason. And reason consistently triumphs over emotion, especially in matters concerning ethics and morality. To become better informed about their belief and disbelief systems, they examine the source of controversial facts and opinions and recognize that to rely only on information that substantiates their own beliefs reinforces their biases and stifles objective inquiry. They demonstrate cognitive permeability by openly modifying their previous views and assumptions as necessary. Able to suspend judgment and reflect on opposing ideas, they enjoy sharpening their ideas on the fine, abrasive steel of dissenting voices, agreeing that “minds are like parachutes; they only function when open.” They are humble seekers, trudging along a path that echoes Socrates’ dictum: “I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” Socrates surrendered his life to the supremacy of such open-minded reasoning.

Finally, recognizing that the best use of one’s intelligence is to first understand oneself, open-minded people are able to examine their own psyches by peering into their genuine thoughts, feelings, and motives as objectively as humanly possible. This self-scrutiny can then be applied to psychological analyses of group motives to determine, for example, if a government is open-minded enough to willingly admit error and make the necessary readjustments.

Dogmatically Undogmatic

NOTES

  1. McEwan, introduction to What We Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, 2006, p. Xvi.
  2. Soyinka, Climate of Fear: The Quest for Dignity in a Dehumanized World, 2005, 118.
  3. W. Allport, “What Is a Trait of Personality?” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 25 (1931): 368-72. Gordon Allport is still recognized as providing one of the earliest—and still one of the best—psychological definitions of a personality trait.
  4. Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies, 1999.
  5. Batchelor, Alone with Others: An Existential Approach to Buddhism, 1983, p. 41.
  6. Rokeach, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Values, 1968. Rokeach states that the different components of attitude are not consistently defined. More than 40 years later, while social psychologists still have not reached complete agreement on the definition of an attitude, there appears to be some consensus on these three components.
  7. Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, 2005, p. 52.
  8. , p. 63.
  9. C. Baltzly, “Who Are the Mysterious Dogmatists of ‘Adversus Mathematicus’ Ix 352? (Sexus Empiricus),” Ancient Philosophy 18 (1998): 145-71.
  10. Sextus Empiricus was a Greek physician and philosopher who defined three schools of philosophy: the Dogmatic, the Academic, and the Skeptic. His three surviving works are Outlines of Pyrrhonism (three books on the practical and ethical skepticism of Pyrrho of Elis, ca. 360-275 BCE), Against the Dogmatics (five books dealing with the Logicians, the Physicists, and the Ethicists), and Against the Professors (six books: Grammarians, Rhetors, Geometers, Arithmeticians, Astrologers, and Musicians). The last two volumes critique the role of professors in the faculties of arts and science.
  11. Suber, “Classical Skepticism: Issues and Problems,” http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/writing/skept.htm This article reviews the rationale and motives of skeptics, academic skepticism, and dogmatism, and illustrates how the philosophic definition of dogmatism differs from the psychological definition. Philosophers claim that people can be dogmatists even if they are not absolutely certain of their beliefs. From a minimalist philosophic definition, “a dogmatist is one who is willing to assert at least one proposition to be true” (p. 10). This contrasts with the broader, psychological definition in this book, which incorporates emotional (primarily anxiety) and behavioral characteristics that are highly influential in the personality trait of dogmatism.
  12. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time, 1997, p. 17.
  13. Suber, “Classical Skepticism,” p. 32.
  14. T. Jost, “The End of the End of Ideology,” American Psychologist, 61, no. 7 (2006): 651-70. Jost presents a good historical review of ideology and its various definitions. He notes that the term ideology “originated in the late 18th century when it was used mainly to refer to the science of ideas, a discipline that is now known as the sociology of knowledge” (p. 651).
  15. This definition of dogmatism is derived from the work of Milton Rokeach, Robert Altemeyer, and myself, Judy J. Johnson.
  16. Korzybski, Science and Sanity, 4th ed. 1958, p. xxxvi.
  17. Shermer, “The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Freud,” panel discussion, Nova, PBS, DVD, 2004.
  18. Abell, and B. Singer, eds., Science and the Paranormal, 1981.
  19. J. Mahoney, “Publication Prejudices: An Experimental Study of Confirmatory Bias in the Peer Review System,” Cognitive Research and Therapy 1 (1977): 161-75.
  20. S. Snelson, “The Ideological Immune System,” Skeptic 4 (1993): 44-45.
  21. Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things, 59.
  22. Rhodes and W. Wood, “Self-Esteem and Intelligence Affect Influenceability: The Mediating Role of Message Reception,” Psychological Bulletin 111 (1992): 156-71.
  23. Macpherson, and K.E. Stanovich, “Cognitive Ability, Thinking Dispositions, and Instructional Set as Predictors of Critical Thinking,” Learning and Individual Differences 17 (2007): 123.
  24. Altemeyer, The Authoritarian Specter, pp. 212-13.
  25. American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th, 1994.
  26. Maslow, The Farther Reaches of Human Nature, 1971. A philosophical, unhostile sense of humor is listed as a feature of Being-cognition—an open-minded style of thought that characterizes self-actualizers.
  27. E. Stanovich, “Reasoning Independently of Prior Belief and Individual Differences in Actively Open-Minded Thinking,” Journal of Educational Psychology 89 (1997): 342-58. Stanovich cites researchers who, in the tradition of cognitive science, have “examined the influence of prior beliefs on argument evaluation and demonstrated how prior belief does bias human reasoning” (p. 342).
  28. Lloyd, “Seth Lloyd,” in What we Believe but Cannot Prove: Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty, 2006, p. 55.
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